by Abigoliah Schamaun
The writer Andrew Soloman said, “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality…”
As a professional stand-up comedian living in London, my job is to create laughter, which can be a by-product of happiness. But laughter does not mean happiness and happiness does not mean vitality. In fact, this article isn’t even about comedy, it’s about my other passion: yoga. Well, yoga and depression.
In the dictionary, vitality is defined as a “capacity for survival or for the continuation of a meaningful or purposeful existence: power to live or grow.” That’s what I strive for. I don’t want to just exist in the world. I want to contribute to it, and be a part of it. I want to make things that the world can enjoy. But just because you want something doesn’t mean it’s easy to accomplish.
I was first diagnosed and given pills for depression when I was 12 years old.
Not uncommon. Everyone I know is sick in the head one way or the other. It’s very trendy. In recent years, mental health has become more and more prevalent in mainstream media. In my own comedy circles it’s become almost fashionable to write an Edinburgh Fringe show about one’s personal struggle with mental health. Last year, The Times did a whole write-up and review on shows dealing with the issue. During the London Marathon last week two men were highlighted for their advocacy with the charity “Heads Together” after meeting when one stopped the other from jumping off the Waterloo Bridge several years ago. Even the Royals have gone through their bouts of depression. Prince Harry and Charles have gone public with their story, talking about the loss of their mother at such a young age, bolstering charity support throughout the U.K., making mental health and depression hot topics nowadays.
However, in Greenville, Ohio, in the late 90s, mental health was not a subject often talked about. And I was going through some stuff at the time—exactly what, I can’t really remember, specifically. It probably was a mixture of things. The stress of school and being a pre-teen mixed with the stress of my home life.
I grew up in a volatile household. My father was an eye surgeon who made a good living so I never wanted for things. But he was also an alcoholic and we never knew when the other shoe would drop. He could be the nicest most charismatic man in the world or he could be cold and emotionally abusive. My parents would fight. Things were tense at home and when things got too overwhelming, I’d go to my room and shut the door and stare at the ceiling. I didn’t devote myself to schoolwork or listen to music, when things got overwhelming I shut down completely, because engaging with anything, even something pleasurable, was too strenuous. Staring at the ceiling was all that was possible. It was white, bland, with small cracks in the plaster. Just the right amount of stimulus for me at the time.
Since 12, I’ve been on and off medication. Once I did it on my own; I just stopped taking SSRI’s cold turkey which is something I’d never suggest. If you suddenly stop taking depression medication, it can worsen one’s depression severely leading to suicidal thoughts and even suicide itself. I was in Australia doing The Melbourne International Comedy Festival when I just stopped taking my meds. I didn’t try to kill myself but my thoughts during that period were unsettling.
When I finally got back to the U.S. and told my doctor what I’d done, she just looked at me and said, “You know if you just stop taking them it can make you suicidal?”
“Yeah, well I know that now, thanks.”
Other times, I’ve done it under a doctor’s supervision and tapered off. The doctors have always recommended I stay with the treatment a little longer, but I insisted and so we stopped with the prescriptions. I didn’t like the way drugs made me feel. Yes, they did lift me up a bit but it always kept me numb as well. I was no longer depressed but I never felt vitality. I was starting to exist with less dread and going out became bearable on drugs, which was a step in the right direction. But I wasn’t exalted. I still lacked the excitement to do things. I was just hovering above the line but not really living above it.
I remember, at 12 years old, my parents taking me to the theatre to see a play called Over the River and Through the Woods right after I went on prozac. It’s a play about a young man and his relationship with both sets of grandparents set over Sunday dinner. The ending of the play was touching. It had a bitter sweet denouement that made me feel both happy and sad. I felt the urge to cry but I physically couldn’t do it. That’s not an uncommon side effect to medication but it was more than my preteen mind could wrap my head around so I asked to go off the medication. And so the cycle began.
In 2011, I started taking an SSRI called Sertraline. I went on it because I was struggling in New York with life and the pursuit of an entertainment career. And I went off them again shortly after my father died. Most people would think that’s a strange time to stop. But I needed to feel that profound sadness to mourn my father.
In 2004, when I was 18 years old, I moved to New York City to study musical theatre and started doing Bikram Yoga, a hot yoga series consisting of 26 postures and two breathing exercise done in 90 minutes. After my first class, I was dripping wet with sweat, beet red and physically drained. I loved it. I was hooked immediately.
For the first two years I practiced five days a week, religiously. I was the most high functioning I’ve ever been. I’d take yoga at 6am, be in school all day, rehearse all night, then get up and do it again. At night I’d go to midtown and see plays and musicals on the cheap. On the weekends my friends and I would find the bars in the East Village where we could drink underage. I don’t ever remember feeling that dark exhaustion or need to shut everything out. I was up, I was moving, I was engaging with the world. For the first time in a long time I possessed vitality.
As I got older and left university, I lost that rigid schedule my musical theatre program provided and, with that, my regular practice of yoga started to fade, and so did my ability to engage with the world. Again, nothing specific happened to knock me off my schedule, but depression isn’t always event driven. Sometimes you just wake up exhausted by the idea of life. That’s one of the frustrating things about it. Everything can be fine except for whatever is going on in your head.
I still practice yoga, but not five times a week. I have other fitness endeavors included now. I run, do CrossFit and sometimes I just meet up with a friend and go for a walk. Other times I go whole stretches of time without any form of exercise at all. As I write this, I haven’t worked out for a week and a half. Partly because I’ve been traveling for work and partly because when I have been home, I haven’t mustered up the motivation to put on lycra and move. Exercise is usually associated with aesthetic appearance. When finding reasons to workout, people stress the calorie burn or the muscle gain. And although those are valid reasons, whether yoga effects my waistline has little to do with why I do it.
It’s that it effects my head. If I don’t workout, I start to get anxious about simple tasks, and long for that old game of staring at the ceiling, looking for the cracks.
But now I’m am thirty one and work needs to be made so money can be had, so bills can be paid. I make my living telling jokes all over the the UK, and many people think a life as an entertainer is glamorous, and part of it is. But in the end, it’s just running a boutique business. I book travel, send invoices, follow up on projects, write stuff that works, stuff that doesn’t and at the end of all that, I get to perform.
I don’t have the time to shut down and stare at whiteness for a week. I have to go to Leeds, or Hull, or Portsmouth and make people laugh for a living. But I know physically moving is the first step back to normalcy. Back to being excited about the tasks ahead as oppose to checking them off a list with mind-numbing dread.
Medication works for a lot of people but hasn’t been ideal for me. I don’t have the patience to play around with cocktails to find which one will lift the depression and not numb my mind. But I know if I can get up and go for a run, or lift a weight, or do a backbend, that will release enough serotonin and endorphins in my body to keep me up and moving.
When I fall off the horse sometimes, to pull myself together, I take a week and just exercise. For me, it’s the first step of recovery. Because once I start moving, the fog will lift. And then I can write, pay bills, go out with friends etc… It may be silly to spend 90 minutes a day on bending in a hot room. But that 90 minutes may get one hour of creative head space. And that’s one hour I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And if I keep moving, that one hour turns into two hours, then three, then four, until I’m no longer depressed, but I’m approaching my life with power to grow. I’m approaching it with vitality.
Just because you feel less depressed doesn’t mean you are always happy. It means sometimes you’re happy, but sometimes you’re sad, or ecstatic, or angry, aroused, frustrated, calm, tearful or overjoyed. When you are not depressed you feel an array of things and can cope with those feelings. When you are depressed you feel sad, and heavy, and it’s all unbearable.
In 2017 there are many treatments for depression and that is good because not one treatment works for everybody. If it did, depression would have been eradicated long ago. Maybe as you read this, the idea of taking hot yoga seems silly. That’s OK, you can try something else—talking therapy, drug therapy, or just go for a walk. But whatever you try, let that treatment accumulate more time in your head where you feel less heavy, where you once again are vital.
Abigoliah Schamaun is a stand-up comedian and Bikram Yoga instructor living in London and performing all over the world. She also has a wellness podcast called “Namaste Bitches Podcast” available on itunes and sticher. She will be debuting her new stand-up show, “Namaste Bitches” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Find out more about her at abigoliah.com or on twitter: @abigoliah
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